Unacknowledged Media Bias

Eiffel TowerPaul Krugman has posted a couple of articles on his blog defending France. You see, “people” say that France’s unemployment rate is high. “They” say that Fance is on the verge of becoming another Greece—or at least Portugal. “They” say that the French are just all screwed up.

The truth is that none of this is actually true. It turns out that the employment situation is actually better in France than in the United States. There is less labor force participation among the young and old, but that is because France doesn’t require students to work and encourages early retirement. What’s more, France has no trouble borrowing, and actually borrows at a rate below that of Germany.

So why do “they” beat up so much on France? Krugman gets it mostly right except in his caution, “[I]t’s hard to avoid the suspicion that it’s ultimately political: with their generous welfare state the French are supposed to be collapsing, so people assume that they are.” The problem is that “people” assume France is a socialism and therefore believe that it much be failing. Socialism is bad, right? And France even has a socialist president: Francois Hollande.

But it isn’t just that everyone assumes that France is doing badly. It is the press—especially the financial press, who tend to be far more economically conservative than the country as a whole. This, of course, is our “objective” press. And note how this objectivity works. It isn’t that the press will come right out and lie about France. They would never, for example, report that labor force participation in France for prime age workers is well below that of the United States. That would be false—it is exactly the opposite. So they simply don’t report that. Instead, they report that labor force participation in France for the young is well below that of the United States. That’s true, but highly misleading. Objectivity!

Of course, I don’t think that journalists are trying to be misleading. It is just that there is a natural tendency to assume that things must suck in France. So when some conservative writes an article about the scourge of youth unemployment in France, the mainstream press pick it up in the big way. When a liberal writes an article that shows that this isn’t the case, the mainstream press just ignore it. It can’t be important because everyone knows it sucks in socialist France.

It can’t be said enough: these unacknowledged biases poison our information flow. This happens in a variety of ways. It changes what stories are written. (You can especially see this in the conservative media where important stories simply aren’t mentioned and bizarre—often made up—stories get blanket coverage. If you want an eye-opener, listen to conservative radio some time.) It changes the focus of stories to the point where they are highly biased. It severely limits the Overton window of acceptable opinion. (This is done most notably by limiting those who are listened to. For example, in the buildup to war, the cable news stations talked almost exclusively to administration officials and former military officers.)

For a long time, I’ve thought that explicitly biased news sources were best. For example, every Friday I listen to FAIR’s weekly radio show Counter Spin. It has a leftist and anti-authoritarian bias. I mostly agree with that bias. Just the same, I can detect during every show things that are biased and not quite correct, even though they try very hard to be accurate and honest. The same can be said on the right, but the truth is that given the huge amounts of money that have been pumped into conservative media, it is damned hard to find an honest broker on the right. The libertarians do a reasonable job. I think Leonard Peikoff does a decent job of being accurate while grinding his ideological ax.

The biggest problem with the mainstream media is that (on economic and international issues, anyway) they are conservative. But they don’t admit this. They claim they are just staking out the reasonable center. And the conservative media use this to convince their audience that they are providing the truth and nothing but the truth. Thus we have the ridiculous “fair and balanced” and “no spin zone” out of Fox News. So bias is a bad thing when it pretends to be objectivity. But bias is a fact and we must embrace it. Otherwise, it will destroy us.

Afterword

In doing research for this article, I was once again confronted with the fact that you just can’t do internet searches on some things. Media bias is one of those things. There was article after article talking about “liberal media bias” saying essentially the same thing: reporters are liberal, therefore the reporting is liberal! In terms of social issues, I more or less agree. But the truth is that on economic issues, it just isn’t true. Nor is it true when it comes to international affairs, where Glenn Greenwald’s observation is dead on, “The overwhelming, driving bias of the US media is subservience to power, whoever happens to be wielding it.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Unacknowledged Media Bias

  1. And what’s often (always?) left out of these silly-billy employment statistics comparing us to Europe are two things. One, our staggering percentage of people in prison. The young, frustrated underclass in Europe is on welfare. Ours are in jail. Two, what kind of employment we’re talking about. Europe’s worker protections are under all-out assault from the right, but at this juncture few northern Europeans have to make do with Wal-Mart pay/benefits.

    There might be something of an unintended consequence to liberalism going on here. When liberalism reached its apex, in the New Deal era for us and post-war era for Europe, citizens were accustomed to paying attention to policy experts and their theoretical ideas. For good reason; many of them worked, and the Right had no academics or experts of any kind. (Hence, the anti-intellectualism craze the Right spurred on in the McCarthy days.)

    Now the Right has its own veritable army of "experts," basically people who know how to opine as though their theories represent accepted wisdom. Economically comfortable (not rich), politically unconnected people there and here (the people who once would have been solidly in the liberal camp once upon a time) read the incessant hum of "austerity" and assume, yes, that’s what the experts think, it must be true.

    Our side sort of created this mindset, and it was pure genius of the Right to start pumping beaucoup bucks into think tanks that could churn out this kind of sensible-seeming, purely ideological drivel.

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